This year’s Rose Bowl matchup is the best reminder that, no matter how desperate matters appear in September, there’s hope that your team can show up in a top game on New Year’s Day (or Jan. 2 as is the date for this year’s Granddaddy of Them All). USC head coach Clay Helton was squarely on the hot seat in his first full season in charge after the Trojans started 1–2. Then he elevated redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold to the starting job, and after a tough loss to Utah in Darnold’s first start, USC won eight straight games and finished the year as one of the hottest teams in the nation. Penn State head coach James Franklin was never in jeopardy of losing his job, but his team was pegged to finish fourth in the stacked Big Ten West and expected to lose 4–6 games after suffering a heartbreaker against Pitt and a shellacking at the hands of Michigan.
This year’s Rose Bowl participants started the season a combined 3–5. From Oct. 1 onward, they went 17–0. So don’t lose faith the next time your team disappoints in September. A New Year’s Six bowl berth may remain within reach.
Points of interest
1. Can Penn State limit Sam Darnold?
Darnold didn’t get any Heisman chatter since he wasn’t the starting quarterback until USC’s third game, but he had one of the finest seasons of any quarterback in the nation and will be a preseason favorite for the award in 2017. The redshirt freshman finished his first regular season with 2,633 yards, a 68% completion rate, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions, stellar numbers for any quarterback and outstanding ones for a freshman assuming the starting role in the second quarter of the season. Darnold has all the traits of a budding star—his pocket awareness is advanced for a player of his age, he can flush the pocket to pick up big yards on the ground, and he’s most effective on mid-range throws, which open up deep shots. He’s one of the most complete QBs in the nation, and Penn State will need to consistently pressure him if it wants to keep pace.
The general expectation entering the season was that Saquon Barkley, Penn State’s star sophomore running back, would anchor a unit that suffered from poor offensive line play the last three seasons. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley was expected to do little more than manage the offense and defer to Barkley to set up scoring opportunities.
Then the Big Ten championship game happened.
McSorley was spectacular against a stingy Wisconsin defense, logging 384 passing yards and four touchdowns to earn MVP honors in the Nittany Lions’ 38–31 comeback win. After an inconsistent September, McSorley tossed 20 touchdowns and just two picks during Penn State’s nine-game winning streak; he also ran for six scores. With a host of big-play receivers (Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton), McSorley can open up the field as long as Barkley is having a big game (which he usually does). Barkley’s emergence as a receiver (23 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns) only helps matters. The variety of options and speed of offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead’s attack should present plenty of problems for USC’s defense.
3. Penn State can’t start slow
The Nittany Lions have been one of the best second-half teams in the nation this season, but they have a penchant for going down early. They spotted Wisconsin a 28–7 lead in the Big Ten title game before recording a thrilling comeback victory. They trailed Ohio State 21–7 entering the fourth quarter before scoring 17 straight to log the upset. They trailed Minnesota at halftime and only led Rutgers 9–0 before heading into the tunnel. Penn State came back to win all of those games, but if the Nittany Lions glitch to start this one, they could end up like Iowa did in last year’s Rose Bowl against Stanford … down 35–0 in the first half.
Burning question: Who wins the line of scrimmage when USC has the ball?
Penn State beat Ohio State because its defensive line harassed Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett throughout the second half, sacking him twice on the final possession and keeping him on the run during the entire fourth quarter. USC has a potential first-round pick in behemoth Zach Banner (6’9”, 344 pounds!) and one of the sturdiest offensive lines in the nation. If Penn State can infiltrate the backfield to pressure Darnold and limit running back Ronald Jones (1,027 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns on the season), then it stands a good chance of sealing a win. If it doesn’t, USC will get star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster involved, which no defensive coordinator ever wants.
X-factor: Adoree’ Jackson
This is an easy one. Jackson probably should have earned an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony because of his versatility and role as one of the most electric players in the nation. He can return punts for touchdowns, break screen passes for big gains and is one of the best defensive backs in the nation. Talking about him isn’t all that interesting, but watching him is.
Statistically speaking: 5.32
That’s the average yards per carry that Penn State surrendered against the three best teams it faced this season (Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin). Those teams saw the same reality in the Nittany Lions’ film: Don’t let the ferocious defensive line hound the quarterback, instead run at them constantly. All three teams logged at least 40 carries in their respective clashes and finished with 10 touchdowns (the Wolverines accounted for six of them). Jones is a physical player with an upright style operating behind a mammoth offensive line. If the Trojans establish a ground game early, Darnold will see plenty of single coverages and likely shred the Penn State defense. McSorley and the Nittany Lions offense can keep up in a shootout, but that’s not a situation they’ll want to face.
This is probably the most exciting game outside of the College Football Playoff matchups because both teams are arguably the hottest in the nation (Alabama excluded, of course). Neither has lost since the last week of September and they are the two most improved teams over the course of the season. There’s star power (Darnold, Barkley, Smith-Schuster, Jackson), there’s Pasadena (forever the best bowl setting) and two blue bloods battling. Whenever the teams overcome their pre-game jitters, each offense will put up points. The difference will be if Penn State can avoid a slow first half—something that has plagued Franklin’s teams all season—to avoid digging too big of a hole. It’s a tough one to call, but I’ll take a big game from Saquon Barkley and an outstanding performance from the Nittany Lions’ formidable defensive line.